As Thailand’s largest island, Phuket is one of the most popular destinations in the country. While it is home to some of the world’s most high-end hotels, spas, and resorts, you don’t have to be a mogul or trust fund baby to enjoy the beauty of its beaches. After deciding to escape New York City for the entire 2015 holiday season, I found myself on an extended vacation in “The Land of Smiles”. It only took a week and a half before a group of my friends and colleagues decided to do the same and join me. While we enjoyed exploring the chaotic, exciting, and red-hot streets of Bangkok, we needed a little sand in our toes.
With very tight budgets, our mission was to fly to Phuket, soak up some sun, and keep the cost as low as possible.
Although there were no high-end accommodations and private yachts involved, we made it work. Here’s how it all went down.
What I love most about Thailand, is that you can have whatever type of holiday you want.
If you wish to spend your days on a secluded, quiet, and all-inclusive resort with nothing but the sound of the ocean outside your villa, you could. For this particular trip, my travel companions were comprised of five 20-something males interested in the complete opposite. These fellas were looking to party, and party hard. It is for this reason, we made the tourists-heavy, crowded, and loud beacon of nightlife that is Patong Beach our vacation headquarters. In all fairness, this setting was perfect for their objective.
While I wouldn’t recommend this section of Phuket Island for someone interested in absolute tranquility, the beach is still probably more beautiful than anything most westerners have ever laid eyes on. The sand is white and the water is clear. If you arrive early enough in the morning, you could get a few moments of serenity before the sun is fully out. By noon, the area is packed with tourists and quiet time is over. This is an active beach full of jet skis, parasailing, and banana boat rides. We spent hours baking in the sun, ordering ice cold beers for $2USD, and having full body massages for $11USD. I even treated myself to a gorgeous henna tattoo which put me back $8USD.
A common ritual around this part of town, is leaving the beach around sunset and heading to fuel up on local eats.
While Phuket is a popular destination in general, Patong Beach draws a massive crowd during the holiday season. Higher prices by street vendors, restaurant owners, and shop keepers are common as the locals take full advantage of the influx of bodies to the area. The closer we were to the beach, the average plate of pad thai or khao pad gai ran about $7USD. By walking roughly 10-15 minutes away from the more densely populated Thawewong Road to streets like Soi Ratchapathanuson or Soi Sansabai, we were able to get the same plates of fried noodles or chicken fried rice for $3USD. We found that the smaller, more intimate the restaurant, the better and more authentic the food.
If you’ve come to this side of the island to take advantage of the party scene, there’s only one thing left to do once night falls: head to Bangla Road.
This quarter of a mile strip of nightlife is closed to street traffic and is jammed packed with bars, pubs, nightclubs, and any other indulgence (naughty or nice) that you could imagine. Whether you’re looking for hip-hop or electronic music, there’s a DJ ready to greet you. To start our nights, we popped into many of the outside bars and ordered up “buckets” to get things started. These 32 oz. beach pails come full of the spirit of your choice and a mixer. At $4USD, one is enough, but if you are able to finish more than two in a sitting, you are a superstar.
After slamming down enormous amounts of Malibu rum and pineapple juice, hitting the dancefloor was our only viable option. We partied at the White Room nightclub the most as it played a decent rotation of hip-hop music and had visiting DJ’s from Europe and America. The crowd was very trendy and a good mix of local Thais and tourists. While the average drink was a bit pricier at $8USD, we were often approached by the resident spokesmodels who offered promotions such as free shots with every round of drinks purchased. If you are looking for more of an electronic vibe, the VIP Room cranked out these type of tracks all night long. For my 20-something traveling mates, descending upon Patong Beach was their equivalent of hitting the jackpot at a casino.
Phi Phi Islands
Phuket is surrounded by the waters of the Andaman Sea and several smaller more secluded islands. Island hopping is one of the most common daytime excursions and for my crew of Thailand novices, setting sail for the Phi Phi Islands was a must.
If you’ve watched the 2000 Leonardo DiCaprio film The Beach, then you’ve already gotten a glimpse at the beauty and wonder of this paradise.
However clear the water appeared while we were on the beach in Phuket, it seemed even clearer here. The sand was softer and whiter and the jet skis, parasailing, and water activities that are ubiquitous to Patong, were non-existent. This is where you go to kick back and chill.
Although Koh Phi Phi Don and Koh Phi Phi Leh comprise these scenic islands, the former is easily accessible to day-trippers (and even those wishing to stay longer) and where we spent our time. We passed the entire day lazing around in the middle of sea as the water remained shallow for what seemed like miles. There’s a stretch of local restaurants that line the beachfront which made grabbing a late breakfast or early lunch an easy task. The prices of food and drinks were a bit higher than what we had experienced in Phuket but, the more remote a destination, the more expensive. While we only planned to visit for the day, we fell in love with the relaxed vibes and gorgeous scenery and decided to stay overnight. After a 15-minute hunt around the area, our group of six was able to secure two deluxe rooms at the Phi Phi Island Hotel for a total of $96USD. Our hotel was a two-minute walk from the beach, very clean, and had basic amenities such as air-conditioning and the all-important Wi-Fi.
As the sun set, the island converted into a low-key mini nightlife district.
The same restaurants that served lunch to families and groups of tourists during the day, began clearing away the dining room furniture to make room for the DJ and dance floor. It was almost as if the local business owners agreed to put on a party for those that stayed the night. Around midnight, we ventured back down to the beach and found what looked like a mile-long, neon-lit row of night clubs. Powered by the ubiquitous “buckets” and electronic dance music, this beach party was a mosh pit of young, sweaty, and definitely high tourists. If you visit Koh Phi Phi Don and are restless enough to venture out of your hotel room at this time of night, be warned. The island is overtaken by early 20-somethings whose routines seemed to be eat, drink, dance, and get a bamboo tattoo. Once again, for my traveling comrades, they were in hog heaven.
The only way to reach the Phi Phi Islands is via boat. We opted for the local ferry which departs Phuket around 9:00am and arrives to Koh Phi Phi Don roughly two hours later. We used the travel agent inside the lobby of our hotel and booked roundtrip tickets for car pick-up to the ferry and the boat ride for $20USD per person. If you are willing to pay $43USD a head, you could rent a speedboat service from Phuket and arrive to Phi Phi in about 50 minutes. While this is a much more expensive option, it is the fastest most flexible mode of transportation as the last ferry ride back to Phuket leaves around 2:00pm.
While we were headquartered at Patong, beach hopping was on the itinerary and we decided to explore nearby Karon Beach. Prior to this trip, I was last in Phuket in 2003. The most immediate and notable difference between now and then would be the increased cost for getting around the island. The average price for taxi and van services has quadrupled to almost $15-30USD a ride.
If you are traveling in a group of six or less, I highly recommend taking full advantage of the local songtaews that wait outside most hotels and hotspots.
We were able to negotiate the price down to $12USD each way and divided by six, this became a very inexpensive daytrip.
We decided to disembark from our songtaew at Karon Center. This beach was a lot longer, more spacious, and we never felt a feeling of crowdedness. The water, while just as clear and beautiful, had a lot more waves and movement. There was much more of a laid back atmosphere than what we’d experienced in Patong. And because we were not completely surrounded by crowds of beachgoers, we felt very comfortable kicking back and playing our music (probably a bit too loudly).
After a full day of playing in the waves, we decided to take a stroll along Karon Beach Road to see what type of entertainment this area had to offer. There were plenty of tourists on the beach and around the local town center however, the area wasn’t overwhelmed with the street and foot traffic that we had become accustomed to in Patong. There were a ton of local restaurants both Thai and western along with the ever-present tailor-made suit shops and massage parlors. While we didn’t intend to partake in the nightlife scene, it was clear that there were plenty of evening socializing.
Karon was a happy median between taking a ferry to a remote island and staying in Phuket’s epicenter of partying.
As a major symbol of the nation, the elephant has been much revered in Thai culture for centuries. If you visit any market or shopping center, you’d see that most Thailand souvenir paraphernalia are adorned with these oversized beasts. The roughly 3000 elephants that remain in the country are mostly scattered throughout various camps. It is important to note that many camps have come under scrutiny over the years as foreigners and tourists have disagreed with the way in which the elephants are contained and kept. It is for this reason, we researched several camps around Phuket and chose to visit the site we felt the animals were the happiest and free.
If you rely on the many travel agents around the island or even those inside of your hotel, booking an elephant trek is fairly easy. There are several different packages that you could choose from. We chose the Kok Chang Elephant Safari Trek. We had a choice of a 45-minute trek for $22USD or a one-hour trek for $25USD. This price also included free roundtrip hotel pick-up. For an additional $25USD, we could have also rented ATV’s and rode up “Big Buddha Hill” to see, well, the Big Buddha. We opted out of this option and chose to ride the free pick-up truck up the hill instead.
This experience was otherworldly.
You can ride one or two to an elephant while a miniature-sized guide controls and maneuvers the animal. You are in the middle of a 100-degree jungle and I can’t express the importance of wearing ample amounts of sunscreen, insect repellent, and shoes that don’t easily fall off. After trekking along for nearly 30 minutes, we stopped at the most scenic lookout point where we had a full view of Karon and Kata beaches. There was a camp worker perched high in a tree taking our photos to capture this moment. We all purchased the pictures afterward for roughly $4USD. When the excursion was all over, we reconvened at the campsite’s café and enjoyed freshly cracked coconuts.
I’ve flown on regional discount airlines around the globe and when it comes to the most inexpensive, those of Southeast Asia can’t be beat. We flew from Bangkok which meant finding a ticket for less than $200USD would be pretty easy.
From Jetstar Airways and Lion Air to Tigerair and Bangkok Airways, there are several carriers to choose from.
For this trip to Phuket, we chose Air Asia as they offered several travel packages that included free hotel with flight. For our preferred price point, we were able to book a roundtrip flight with accommodations at the Aspery Hotel in Patong Beach.
The property was closer to the beach than we had anticipated (two-minute walk) and the neighborhood, while close to the action, was on a quieter section of the beach. On nights we didn’t want to travel too far for dinner, there were plenty of nearby and yummy restaurants to choose from. There was even a roti lady who made the most sinfully sweet and delicious creations every night outside the lobby. The onsite travel agent was a great help in keeping our excursions and daytrips at a low cost. There was even a perk that the Air Asia package description didn’t cover: free buffet breakfast! If you’d like to go to Phuket and spend thousands of dollars and indulge in the opulence the island is known for, there’s more than enough opportunity to do so.
But, for less than $500USD per person, we were able enjoy a week-long stay in one of the most beautiful tropical destinations in the world.